Thursday, March 19, 2009
Hello in there. Hello
I get these kinds of calls all the time. Usually from the local Funeral Home.
So, when I got the phone call the other day that a "long time member" of my congregation had been transferred to a local hospice with a request that I visit, I was pleasantly surprised.
"Long time member"? Sure. Never mind that I haven't seen the name or the name of any member of the family on any membership or pledge list in the going-on eight years I've been at St. Paul's.
And my wardens wonder why I tell them not to get too excited about the numbers on the Parochial Report.
Actually, I was just glad to be able to make a 'live' connection with someone before the inevitable telephone call comes from the Funeral Director.
I had no idea what I was walking into. Probably a good thing.
I'll call her Jane. She's 92. Macular degeneration has stolen most of her eyesight. The only way she can really hear is if you put your face inches from her ear and YELL. REAL LOUD.
Oh, and she has what is called "Senile Dementia."
When I first laid eyes on her, she was taking a little post-prandial snooze in her wheel chair. Her lunch tray was on a cart just outside her tiny but tidy room. I was pleased that the place smelled so good.
Her head was bent onto her chest, her snow white hair rebelling against a random black bobby pin, resolutely refusing to behave or conform to any particular style. I should have seen it as a sign. Her large hands were folded on her chest, a mass of ancient knuckles and knots.
I touched her hand gently and then said, loudly, I thought, "Hello, Jane."
Moving closer I said, louder still, "HELLO, JANE!"
I hated doing it, but I move right close to her ear and yelled, "HELLO JANE!"
That did it. She looked up and yelled, "YES. I SAID I'M DONE WITH MY LUNCH."
This was clearly not going to be easy.
I leaned in again, yelling in her ear, "HI, JANE. MY NAME IS ELIZABETH."
"WHO?" she yelled back.
"MY NAME IS ELIZABETH. I'M THE PRIEST FROM ST. PAUL'S, CHATHAM."
A moment of confusion was washed away from her face by a beautiful smile.
"ST. PAUL'S?" she said, "THAT'S MY CHURCH."
"I KNOW," I yelled, "THAT'S WHY I'M HERE. I'M THE PRIEST. MY NAME IS ELIZABETH."
"ST PAUL'S", she yelled. "GREAT CHURCH. WHAT DO YOU DO THERE?"
"I'M THE PRIEST."
She looked confused, so I offered, "I'M THE MINISTER."
"AHHHHH . . ." she said in understanding. "WELL, THAT'S NICE."
"DO YOU REMEMBER WALTER BELL?" I asked, thinking that this particular predecessor, who had also predeceased us both, might have been the one to have been her minister.
"UMMMMM . . . . I DON'T THINK SO. WHO ARE YOU?"
"I'M ELIZABETH. I'M FROM ST. PAUL'S."
"OH, YES. I REMEMBER YOU. She smiled politely at no one in particular.
Then she asked me, "DO YOU REMEMBER WALTER BELL?"
This was to become the pattern. I would ask her if she remembered something. She wouldn't. She'd later circle back to the issue and then ask me if I remembered - as if she knew the information all along and was checking in on my memory.
It was a delightful little game which seemed to restore her sense of control in the conversation. I was happy to play along as she seemed to enjoy our exchanges, such as they were.
"HOW OLD ARE YOU?" she asked.
"WELL," I said coyly, "A LADY NEVER REALLY REVEALS HER AGE."
She snorted a laugh, "YEAH, WELL, YOU'LL GET OVER THAT PRETTY QUICK."
"SO, HOW OLD ARE YOU? I CAN'T REALLY TELL BY LOOKING AT YOU."
"WELL," I said, "LET'S JUST SAY THAT I'M NOT 92."
"HA!" she snorted, "I'M A LOT YOUNGER THAN YOU!"
I wasn't sure if she heard me say that I was 92 or if she was just confused.
"HOW SO?" I asked, "HOW OLD ARE YOU?"
"I'M 56!" she giggled in absolute delight, adding, "NINETY-TWO! DID YOU SAY NINETY-TWO? BOY OH BOY! YOU ARE REEEALLLLY OLD! WELL, YOU LOOK PRETTY GOOD TO ME FOR SUCH AN OLD COOT! BUT THEN AGAIN, MY EYES DON'T WORK THEY WAY THEY SHOULD."
Some of the nurses and personal care attendants began to gather outside the room, delighted to hear her engage in conversation. Well, there was really no avoiding it. I think the folks three miles down the road could hear every word we spoke.
We . . . "chatted" . . . like this for about 20 minutes or so. Some parts were very sad. She didn't remember her daughter with whom she had lived for the past 10 years and who, up until 2 weeks ago, had tenderly and lovingly cared for her until it became time for her to be admitted to hospice care.
"AH, YOU KNOW. CHILDREN THESE DAYS. THEY DON'T CARE FOR THEIR ELDERS THE WAY WE USED TO CARE FOR OUR PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS," she said sadly. "THEY JUST DUMP THEM INTO NURSING HOMES LIKE THIS AND LET THEM WASTE AWAY."
Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The nursing staff told me that her family visits her several times a week, bringing her favorite foods and flowers and cards - which were tacked on the wall behind her hospital bed.
She didn't recognize any of the grandchildren whose picture were lovingly displayed on the window sill by her bed. She didn't recognize pictures of herself at her birthday parties and surrounded by family at Christmas. At other times, she thought she was living at home with her parents.
"WHAT DID YOUR FATHER DO FOR A LIVING?" I asked.
She thought for a moment and then her face brightened with a memory, "HE COLLECTS STAMPS. STAMPS FROM ALLLLLL OVER THE WORLD. AND I HELP DADDY KEEP THEM IN A BOOK. YES, HE COLLECTS STAMPS AND I HELP HIM."
The memory clearly warmed her heart and her face actually blushed with pleasure. It was a delight to see her so happy in that wonderful moment of memory.
The nursing staff marveled at the way she was able to keep up her side of the conversation, such as it was. "She's really not engaged with anyone on the staff in the two weeks she's been here. She's got quite a great personality, hasn't she?" they marveled.
Indeed. Here are a few of the things she said. LOUDLY:
"AH, YOU KNOW, I CAN'T SEE VERY WELL, AND I CAN'T HEAR VERY WELL. BUT, AT LEAST I HAVE MEMORIES. WELL, WHEN I CAN REMEMBER THEM."
"YOU KNOW, THEY SAY THAT A MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE. WELL, IT'S PRETTY TERRIBLE WHEN YOUR MIND GOES TO WASTE. IT'S AWFUL TO LOSE CONTROL OF YOUR MIND. ALTHOUGH, I MUST SAY, IT'S MUCH, MUCH WORSE TO LOSE CONTROL OF YOUR BOWELS AND BLADDER."
I giggled. She didn't. She was as serious as a heart attack.
The nurses were outside her room, falling all over themselves with laughter. Thank God she couldn't hear my giggles or their laughter.
And then a deep, bone-aching weariness seemed to overtake her. Our twenty-minute conversation-cum-yelling match had clearly exhausted her. She even looked a bit pale. I offered to have the nurses put her back to bed.
"ARE YOU KIDDING ME? NO, I DON'T WANT TO GO TO BED! I'VE GOT TO GET TO THE TRAIN STATION. DADDY WILL BE WAITING FOR ME."
"DADDY?" I asked.
"YES. HE COMES HOME ON THE 5:58 EVERY EVENING AND HE DOESN'T LIKE ME TO BE LATE."
"JANE," I yelled as tenderly as I could, "YOU DON'T HAVE TO PICK UP YOUR DADDY. YOU ARE IN A NURSING HOME NOW. REMEMBER? I'M ELIZABETH."
She looked at me, all ancient eyes wide with curiosity.
"FROM ST. PAUL'S, RIGHT? I REMEMBER."
"YES. I'M ELIZABETH FROM ST. PAUL'S IN CHATHAM."
"YES, I REMEMBER," she smile, "OF COURSE I REMEMBER. DO YOU REMEMBER . . . OH, WHAT WAS HIS NAME . . ."
"YES! DO YOU REMEMBER WALTER BELL."
"NO, JANE. I'M AFRAID I DON"T"
"WELL," she said with great satisfaction, "I DO."
She asked me if I would come again tomorrow. I told her I would be back next week. No, she insisted, I had to come back tomorrow. I told her I would be back as soon as I could.
"GOOD," she said, "AND BRING YOUR PURSE. WE'LL GO INTO THE CITY FOR A DAY OF SHOPPING. I'LL EVEN BUY YOU LUNCH."
I offered to say a prayer with her before I left. "I'M GOING TO SAY THE LORD'S PRAYER. YOU CAN SAY IT WITH ME, IF YOU LIKE."
She kept up with every word. I don't know why, but I was amazed. And, humbled. I suddenly realized that the nursing staff who had gathered at the door way were holding hands and joining us in prayer.
As we continued, I was aware that there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Including mine.
You know, as often as I say that prayer in the course of my day, there are fewer times when I've said it with a greater sense of the presence of the Holy in our midst. There was no doubt in my mind that Jesus was there, hearing every word.
Of course, He could have been thousands of miles in outer space and still have heard us for all the yelling we were doing. No matter. Jesus hears the prayers of our hearts even before they get to our lips.
On my way home, I remembered that song Bette Middler did many years ago. "Hello in there. Hello." I found myself singing it softly to myself.
You know that old trees just grow stronger,
and old rivers grow wilder every day,
but old people, they just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
"Hello in there. Hello"
I am rejoicing now, for "long time members" whose names don't appear on any membership or pledge list. Their names are written in the palm of God's hand.
All the deeds they have done for the church, or in the name of the church, are duly recorded, kept locked away, safe in the heart of Jesus.
All the hymns they have sung and all the devout prayers they have prayed have embedded themselves in the hard wood of the church and reverberate back to us in times of quiet meditation and prayer in that sanctuary.
I am blessed to know that I can at least look forward to a few more 20 minute visits with Jane, perhaps helping her to recover a few more memories that will bring a light to her hollow, empty eyes and a smile of delight to her ancient face.
And, when it comes time to commend her soul to God and send her home to Jesus, I'll be able to do so knowing that all the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven will rejoice that I know of what I speak.
If you click on the above link, it will take you to a YouTube video of the Divine Ms. M, performing "Hello in there. Hello." She begins with a little story about meeting an overweight woman in a blue housecoat, walking down 42nd Street, and, as a hat to protect her from the sun, a fried egg on her head.
Ms. Middler says, "You know, we all have fried eggs - some are on the outside and some are on the inside."
I'll let the Divine Ms. M have the last word.
So if you're walking down the street sometime
and you should spot some hollow ancient eyes,
don't you pass them by and stare
as if you didn't care.
Say, "Hello in there. Hello.